What I like best about the tiny letter format is the ‘letter’ bit: the way they arrive in your inbox so personally, as if really from a friend. I usually read it in bed, too, the way I’d read a letter. So I’ve tried to write a tiny letter which can be read like that, intimately, and to keep it to stories I love in that same way: not intellectually but personally, the ones I have internalised and sometimes even reused. I’ve tried to keep it short: I think ‘tiny’ is a good word, too.
Like most writers I was an unsuccessful child: ‘I played in the school yard all alone,’ as Frank O’Hara put it. Also like most writers I spent hours obsessively reading almost anything. The floor of my childhood bedroom was where I formed my unhygienic reading habits: to this day, I read books back-to-front and sides-to-middle – not so much interested inwhathappens but how, and in images and phrases I could store in my head. Joan Aiken’s short stories were particularly good for this: they’re beautifully written and beautifully formed too, packed with surreal images and well-turned sentences). I must have read ‘The Serial Garden’a hundred times. Mark Armitage – the Armitage family are a recurring trope – stumbles on a very disagreeable breakfast cereal which tastes of alfafa grass but has a beautiful printed cut out garden on the back of the packet, and a delicate, magical and sad sequence of events results. Certain phrases from this story – Mark finding the putting of the garden together “a long, fiddling, pleasurable job” or missing his sister, ill with measles and “a handy and uncritical eater”, haunt me unreasonably to this day. I suppose it’s also a story about me and my brother in the ‘70s when there really were terrible little corner shops and we built an Asterix village from the back of the Weetabix packets.
First published in Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home (Doubleday, 1968), collected in The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories (Virago, 2015)
I played a lot of clock patience when I was about fourteen: I liked to watch the pattern repeating and deviating. In the same way, I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes and PG Wodehouse. They were soothing even if they didn’t quite deliver that hit of total absorption I was looking for. Guy de Maupassant’s ‘La Parure’, which I read in French, seemed a bit like one of those patterns at first, so I moved over to his stories in translation, and found myself in receipt of the strong stuff, his marvellous mixture of shape, character, and sensuality. ‘Idyll’, for instance, is outrageous: a man meets a wet nurse on the train. He is hungry and she is busting and the result is stupendous. It helped to cure me of the notion that sex didn’t exist in the past. Also, I’d been on the train in the opening description and I was amazed that writing showed it better than telly. “The train had just left Genoa en route for Marseille and was following the long curves of the rocky coast. It slithered like an iron snake between the mountains and the sea, past beaches of yellow sand lapped by little silver waves, before being swallowed up into the mouth of a tunnel like an animal bolting into its lair.”
First published in 1884. Widely translated and collected, including in A Parisian Affair and Other Stories (Penguin Classics, 2004)
From Maupassant I hopped via Penguin Classics to Chekhov then Katherine Mansfield. Oh, I could fill this tiny letter with Katherine Mansfield, but I’ve picked ‘The Young Girl’ because I nearly know it by heart. The narrator, who seems to be an older man, has the care of a teenage girl thrust at him by her mother, desperate to go back to the gambling halls in what seems to be Monaco. Nothing bad happens: just a dreamlike narrative with carriages and wonderful ice creams. The girl is very angry, but the story ends on a transformative image:
“Please,” she stammered, in a warm, eager voice. “I like it. I love waiting! Really really I do! I’m always waiting – in all kinds of places.”
Her dark coat fell open, and her white throat – all her soft young body in the blue dress – was like a flower that is just emerging from its dark bud.’
First published in The Athaneum, 1920. Collected in The Garden Party (1922) Available online here
I grew up in Edinburgh and so with Muriel Spark. I still like her short stories best: she seems to be to get bored with plots even in novellas. ‘You Should Have Seen the Mess’ was a favourite of mine at sixteen: it’s about class, the artistic life, and untidiness – things which concern me still. A girl, her Edinburgh voice clear on every page – “we did not go to the full extent”, she says of sex – and trained like Spark, as a secretary, is taken out by an artist who we recognise as rich and talented, but she rejects him because he is not tidy enough for her. I always worried why the artist liked the tidy stupid girl though: I felt it didn’t bode well for me. (I was right.)
First published 1958. Collected in The Go-Away Bird and Other Stories and the Collected Short Stories (Canongate, 2011)
Critical consciousness is a terrible thing for book love, and so are weekly essays. I didn’t adore many books at university but I did discover the Southern Gothics: Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, my favourite of all because of that sensual, dream-like quality I am always looking for. I ate up all her stories, and realise that I actually internalised and re-wrote ‘Livvie’, which is the story of a young girl married to an older man who leaves him on his death-bed for her lover, in my novel Meeting the English. Welty manages to make not only Livvie but her husband and lover entirely sympathetic: like Idyll,it’s a story about the life force almost more than sex.
First published 1942. Collected in Thirteen Stories (Harcourt Brace, 1977)
Becoming a teacher did much to refresh my love of reading: it lets you go over and over small bits of text and share them too. I came across Jamaica Kincaid as a writer of teenagers, but actually she has a wide range and a startling biography.‘Girl’ is a very short story entirely in the imperative about the duties of a young girl in the Caribbean – another story about women, and cleaning. The voice, shape and details are all spot on: I love to teach this; it’s the definition of a rich text.
First published in The New Yorker, June 1978 and collected in At the Bottom of the River (FSG, 1983)
It took me a long time to start to think I could write myself, and even longer after I started to write poems to dare to break into prose. Helen Dunmore showed me you could do both. ‘The Love of Fat Men’ is one of her ‘Ulli’ stories: about a cool, but emotionally honest Finnish girl. I’ve spent a lot of time in Finland too and recognise the cold grey landscape and Ulli’s trenchant, open character. Helen Dunmore gave me my first good review and was unfailingly generous to me and many others throughout her career. She died recently and I miss her
From Love of Fat Men (Penguin, 1997)
Elizabeth Taylor was on my bedside table in the hospital when I gave birth to my first child. ‘The Devastating Boys’ is about a childless woman in a prim English village fosters who fosters two rough little boys from London just after the war. Nothing dramatic happens: it’s just a devastatingly real portrayal of what love is like, and how it will run its own roads through your life – a bit like ‘Livvie’ I suppose.
First published in McCalls, 1966 and collected in The Devastating Boys (1972) and the Virago Complete Short Stories, 2012
Grace Paley’s stories should be in the birthing pack for new mothers, along with the muslins and nappy wrap. No one else is as a good at the way women talk to each other, especially in the mothering-places like the playground and the park. Her women are difficult, funny, fantastically diverse, frank and above all resilient, making the best of some hilariously bad jobs. The talk seems to go on through the stories, one to the next, in a never-ending stream, but I’ve picked ‘Friends’ because its ending – “I was right to invent for my friends and our children a report on these private deaths and the condition of our lifelong attachments” – has become a sentence that lives in my head, like Harriet’s eating or Mansfield’s budding girl.
First published in The New Yorker, June 1979. Collected in Later the Same Day (1985) and the Collected Stories (FSG, 1994/Virago Modern Classics, 2018)
I was late to the Lorrie Moore party, but I made up for it by discovering her just when my favourite collection, Birds of America, was published, and then consuming every word she has published since, fiction or not – in fact her lively intersection is one of the best things about her work. The story ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’ affected me profoundly: I read it over and over for weeks. It’s about a mother whose child develops a childhood cancer, and their experiences in the hospital. Her observation, her acuity, her humour, and above all her honesty and her confidence that these sort of experiences could make a story were liberating for me: a few years later, I drew directly on this story for an early one of my own, ‘The Not Dead and the Saved’.
First published in The New Yorker, January 1997 and collected in Birds of America (Knopf/Faber, 1998) and the Collected Short Stories (Knopf, Faber, 2008)
I would like to be Anne Enright when I grow up, but I fear I may have missed my window. I love her sentences and perspicacity. I think she’s a short form artist really – her novels fall into segments, like oranges, and her essays are marvellous. ‘Here’s to Love’encapsulates many of the things I love best: the sharp dialogue, the unaffected, apparently artless structure, the gripping characters, the wit, and that pragmatic optimism which is also in the non-fiction.
“I still walk down the street most evenings. And every time I do this, I think about a bullet in the back – about the fact that most of the time, it does not happen to me,” says the protagonist: another mantra for me.
First published in The Guardian, December 2007 and collected in Taking Pictures (Jonathan Cape, 2008)
Reviewing can also be the opposite of absorption. Sarah Hall’s Madame Zero, though, knocked me right out of my critical pulpit. In fact it winded me: it took me a week or so to frame any thoughts at all. All the stories were great but I envied ‘Evie’ especially. It’s about sex and threesome, ostensibly “She always invited the other back in. He wanted to watch from the chair; he watched her being. touched, grasped, opened, watched her responding. He began to understand: jealously was only desire; it was wanting to do what he could see was being done to his wife.” But in fact it is about marriage, and death and illness and madness. I read it over and over: I hope to do as well one day.
First published in The Sunday Times, July 2013 and collected in Madame Zero (Faber, 2017)